Andrei Tarkovsky

Between Two Films

The following article by Andrei Tarkovsky first appeared in Iskusstvo kino 11 (1962) 82-4 (in Russian). It is published here for the first time in English. Translation copyright by Robert Bird (University of Chicago, Slavic Languages and Literatures).

Meeting with viewers of Ivan's Childhood I have often been glad to hear both praise for the film and friendly criticism. Perhaps it would be useful to include more participants in these conversations, when one film is behind us and we are thinking through the next one.

I received and read V. Bogomolov's story "Ivan" together with the screenplay that was offered to me. The story struck me as better than many sentimental and didactic stories of young heroes which inevitably feature the following episodes: 1) the infant deceives an enemy officer; 2) the infant is dressed in a child's uniform and is fed with sweets; 3) he is adopted by a military unit, either a border patrol, submarine, or garrison orchestra.

The main protagonist of V. Bogomolov's story attracted me by the holistic movement of the same theme as that which is shown, admittedly with more power, by Fedor Dostoevsky in some of his characters. This is a character created and absorbed by war.

Beyond the diligently described military episode I wanted to see the grave changes which war makes in the life of a man, in this case a very young one. To see a truthful depiction of its hardening and resistance, and to show its battle with the insanity of militarized death. To this effect I added to the film dreams which attain central significance in the film's ideas and composition. Of especial importance is the final dream, which we the viewers see after we find out about Ivan's execution. The viewer sees a protagonist who no longer exists and absorbs into himself elements of his real and possible fate. This final dream, the run along the river bank, was created not to lighten the film's finale (as some have thought); that would be false and distasteful in a work in which the majority of protagonists die (despite the fact that as authors we held to an optimistic point of view). Instead, this is a cinematic-poetic tragedy.

In this sense the storyline of Masha is far from a "romantic interlude," and Kholin's reserve towards her is not a tribute to editorial or commercial virtue. The kiss over the trench, in my opinion, is remotely and quite indirectly associated with a graveside kiss. And this is another tragic image, at least to my mind. There is the pre-marital joy at a waltz and another kind of joy, one Pushkin described as "on the edge of a gloomy abyss" [1]. That is what we needed.

It took a long time to find a location for the "dance of the birches." We looked through dozens of birch groves. We found it outside Moscow. My cinematographer Vadim Yusov was overjoyed. During the shoot I walked alongside him, clapping my hands and counting "" Seriously, though, this sterile birch texture of a spectrally-beautiful forest somehow hints, even if extremely indirectly, at the inescapable "breeze of the plague" which pervades the existence of the film's characters. In the film we connected the episodes to each other based on poetic associations. The montage was inspired by emotions, not by the direct sequence of events.

In V. Bogomolov's story the atmosphere of tense anticipation replaces an account of the scouts' expeditions; one feels what it's like when the front is expecting the decisive hour. The soldiers use this time to sew on buttons, clean their weapons, listen to records, and remember their homes. People start writing letters and give themselves over to recollections and a particular nervous state of mind. Modern cinema has accumulated means for analyzing such slow moments. It is no longer alien to the idea that "life like the silence of autumn is detailed." The quickly flashing shots that is typical of the quick montage contrasts of Pudovkin's Saint Petersburg or the battle sequences of Barnet's Outskirts is hardly capable of expressing the modern truth of war [2]. I think that a modern film must give the viewer a larger amount of information.

At some point in the development of cinematic art it was possible to edit accented and sometimes even poster-like fragments without departing from the truth. This is what created the style of cinematic narrative. Now a larger portion of the film must be devoted to the slowly passing minutes of anticipation, delays, and pauses, which are far from being ventilation holes in the narrative progression.

If we replaced to a greater degree the direct passage of the plot with slow nervous tenseness, we would be closer to success in our tasks. Our film is probably not complete in this respect. In some things we did not succeed, some things we did not have time to do. For instance, I was advised to omit the episode in the village ruins with the old man (and I also thought this seemed preferable), but it was too late.

I am sick of contrasts like: a church in the war, a church in artillery fire. We failed to find locations for a less conspicuous solution. The command point and positions were supposed to be located at a ceramics factory with a strange outline. And during the artillery fire there was supposed to be a deserted scene of carts on narrow tracks filled with unfinished raw production. These were supposed to move back and forth due to the force of the shock waves. I am most envious of Mikhail Il'ich Romm who had the will and means to replace the shot in Nine Days where Gusev and his wife contemplate a buried radioactive plate with a simple walk-through of Batalov against the background of the Mosfilm wall [3]. Here the symbolism of a literary screenplay was replaced by an element of visual cinemagenics... We should keep it this way!

But sometimes the concrete conditions of work dictate useful constraints and one must sense the "artistic direction" of nature in difficulties that arise and in the impossibility of other solutions. We had the following plan for landing the scouts on the opposite bank: thick fog, black figures, and the flashes of flares; the figures cast shadows on the fog, incorporeal sculptures of a kind. However the light breeze of the Kanev flood plain (where we shot the "drowned forest") would have destroyed our smoke constructions. Then we thought of showing various perspectives on the landing during the rocket flares and contrasting them together in approximately the following way: a flare illuminates a shot of two men and the shoulder of a third with movement to the right; another flare shows three small figures in the distance moving away from us; another flare illuminates a shot of eyes and wet branches... etc. However when the idea of a montage "of flares" fell away, we filmed the material that ended up in the picture and this turned out to be probably simpler and more impressive.

The experience with this material helped me sense a tendency that I will try to formulate or at least outline. The shortcomings of contemporary film direction are more or less common to all. One of them is the excessively direct language of the mis-en-scène. If, during a conversation with a woman, the protagonist places his foot on a chair where her clothes are hanging, this means that a "fault" has opened up in their relations and he no longer loves her... Since the mis-en-scène should "express the essence," as lecturers often say, we immediately see the shallow bottom of the shot. The action in the shot is organized intellectually, although in fact man's psychic state and its physical expression are not usually coordinated in such a direct fashion.

An excessively frank and image-laden mis-en-scène with its subtext open for all to see is part of a broader phenomenon when a shot is subordinated to the requirements of literary discourse or obvious imagery. In one of the most ageless films L'Atalante by Jean Vigo there is an episode where the newlyweds, a girl and a young sailor, walk from the church to a barge [4]. To the sound of a trivial accordion they walk around three large hayricks, now disappearing (and we see a deserted landscape), now appearing anew. What is this? A ritual, a dance of fertility? No, the episode is significant not for a literary retelling, not in its symbolism, not in its visual metaphoricity, but in its concrete saturated existence. We see a form filled with feeling.

I think that such concepts as intellectual cinema and intellectual montage have no future... Cinema will remain an emotional area and one must film what one has experienced, felt, suffered, and not what one constructs. (Although in the area of montage rhythm Sergei Eisenstein's films remain a most valuable example: rhythm, acting upon the subconscious, helps us to touch the deep strata of the psyche directly, without associative loopholes.)

The specific nature of our art must be developed on an emotional basis. We depended on prose for too long and this is causing an increasing number of complications. In turn poetic cinema also has its minuses: as a young artform, it quickly succumbs to pretentiousness. But it is not only the authors of films who want to escape clichés, but also viewers. At the discussion of our Ivan's Childhoodat the cinema club of Moscow University one of the students said: "It's good that your horses eat apples. We are sick of oats and hay."

Poetry can teach us to communicate a large amount of emotional information with scant means and scant words. The lesson of poetry is also good for film directors in that it forces us to value reserve and calls us to be ourselves and to listen closely to the world.

The poetry of the cinema is not only in the colored glass and funeral biers with an enormous flower (I have in mind the film Man Follows the Sun [5]) but also in a greater concision, greater intensity.

When in The Fate of Man the camera rises over Sokolov who has escaped from a POW camp, such a pull towards freedom, such will is expressed in its movement, in the waves of the field of grain, and in the slightly disjointed figure of the soldier... [6] The only problem is that the cry of a dog's bark starts too early on the soundtrack. What he would give to remain here, in this field, under a quiet breeze, in his Russia!

If it is worth avoiding clichés of literature and fiction, going hand in hand with poetry and music, then one must admit: all the more harmful for the screen is the pressure exerted by traditional painting. Directors still quite frequently prefer to construct an image instead of finding it in life. Quite recently in the film Othello one could have superimposed an entire museum of reproductions onto Shakespeare's text [7].

I think that one of the main factors in the aesthetic authenticity of film is currently the director's and cinematographer's feeling for texture. Success depends on the director's ability to conceive and find a concrete medium and on the cinematographer's ability to "absorb" it.

A thought that is communicated in texture is minimally obtrusive but maximally distinct. In one of the shots of Earth, showing the work of a horsedrawn plough from a very low point of view, Dovzhenko and Demutsky contrasted two types of loose, friable soil: the black ploughed earth and the white clouds, which were as if ploughed.

The path away from "literary narration" towards "cinematic event" is opened by "absorbing" the medium on the film stock (a central role here is played by the cameraman's gentleness, a quality Vadim Yusov has in droves), creating a shot that acts upon the viewer by its contrasts or by the unity of its surface. Let us say a man is walking along a white wall covered in shells. The cut of the blocks, the character of the cracks and, so to speak, the rustle of ancient seas that is condensed in their silence creates a single circle of ideas and associations, a single part of its characterization. Another appears when we take the opposite viewpoint and the hero moves against a background of a dark-grey sea and black pyramidal trees grouped arythmically. He changes the tilt of his head, he argues with the decisions he just made. In other words, we move not on an abstract-logical path, where words and actions are assigned a value from the very beginning, but along a poetic path. In this way we avoid literary discourse and, at the end, can say with Pushkin's words:

                Why, o prose writer, do you fret?
                Give me a thought, whichever you like...

I don't mean to express all of these ideas in a declarative tone. I don't know about anti-novels and anti-films, but I am all for anti-manifestoes. end block


[1] From Feast at a Time of Plague (1830) by Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837).
[2] The End of Petersburg (1927) by Vsevolod Pudovkin and Outskirts (Okraina, 1933) by Boris Barnet.
[3] Nine Days of One Year (1962) by Mikhail Romm, starring Aleksei Batalov.
[4] L'Atalante (1934) by Jean Vigo.
[5] Man Follows the Sun (Chelovek idet za solntsem, 1961) by Mikhail Kalik.
[6] The Fate of Man (Sud'ba cheloveka, 1959) by Sergei Bondarchuk, based on a story by Mikhail Sholokhov.
[7] Tarkovsky probably means Sergei Iutkevich's 1955 Othello, although he may mean Orson Welles' 1951 version.
[8] From "Prose Writer and Poet" (1825) by Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837).

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